Recently I asked, Victoria Janssen, what her advice was on writing historical detail. She gave some interesting advice which can help all of us as writers:
“One of the most important things I do as a writer is read.
I don’t think it’s possible to become a writer unless you’re a reader first, and for most writers, reading is as integral to their development as writing itself.
How do other writers handle pacing and transitions, and how they balance between telling and showing? How do they depict character traits? Describe things? Express themes? What can you learn from their plot structure? Do they use any interesting vocabulary that’s new to you? What makes you angry about the book, and makes you want to write a better/different book in reaction?
But aside from learning directly about technique, what should a writer read, and why?
The short answer is everything. That, of course, isn’t really possible; and also, writing takes up a great deal of time, so reading time has to be prioritized in the same way.
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In general, a writer reads in the genre she is writing. She reads the best examples of her subgenre, because the best books can give her something to strive for. However, the “worst” examples might be doing something new and exciting, even if it didn’t work out in the end, and those books might inspire even more than the “best” books.
I also think it’s important to know the history of your genre, particularly the early examples of it. Fringe examples are also useful. For example, Mary Stewart wrote an early example of a paranormal romance, Touch Not the Cat. Nora Roberts also wrote some paranormal romances long before the current boom. Early and fringe examples can reinvigorate a writer’s idea of what their genre is and can be.
Reading classics can’t hurt, either. Great themes in literature usually remain great themes, and can provide fodder for your future work. If you’ve read Jane Eyre or Pamela or Persuasion, even if you’re not consciously using that knowledge when writing a historical romance, unconsciously it might make a difference by giving your work a little extra depth or resonance.
And then there’s historical research.
Research isn’t something one does and then finishes. There’s a baseline of knowledge needed to begin writing the story. When first reading about a time period, I try to get a general overview of events and social conditions. After that, I make mental notes of details that I’d like to examine in more depth, and read more.
For fiction, the details are vitally important. My characters might not care who the president of the United States is in 1923, but they are intimately concerned with the price of bread, how to do their laundry, and how to go about traveling from Boston to New York.
In the course of writing, I discover more details I need to know, such as “if she buys a hat in this particular summer, what kind will it be, and how much will it cost?” Then I go and find out, and slip it into the text, hopefully giving the reader one more data point to solidify their belief that they’re time-traveling.
Finally, the research process may be nebulous. If at some point during the writing, inspiration would be welcome, research can help. For example, I might read newspapers from the period I’m writing about, with few expectations beyond, “see if I can find anything about how they celebrated Halloween.” And in the course of that generalized reading, come across some facts about a parade which I can use to shore up an event I’d already written in the text.
It all counts. It’s all useful. And the more a writer reads, the better.”
You can find out more information on Victoria by visiting her website www.victoriajanssen.com
MOONLIGHT MISTRESS, December 2009 from Harlequin Spice.
THE DUCHESS, HER MAID, THE GROOM AND THEIR LOVER, December 2008 from Harlequin Spice.